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Being the token black person is not fun. I am expected to be an authority on the lives of all black people. People think I represent all black people and black culture; however, at the same time, I’m supposed to rise above black culture.
What is the token black person? The token is not supposed to be your everyday black person. The token is the good black person. You know, the black person that doesn’t adhere to all the negative stereotypes of black people. People of other races feel a little less threatened by him. Apparently, the token is different from all the other black folk; however, he’s still black enough for people to mention his name when talking about diversity.
The token is expected to know about all things black—he’s your urban teacher. Though the token is not like other black people, he still understands them. If you’re from a place with no black people and your only exposure to them has been movies like “Get Rich or Die Trying,” then the token will be your one black friend that you feel you can trust.
Don’t be fooled—it’s not that simple.
The history of race in America has been a power struggle between groups. Black people have not been oppressed on the basis of their individual faults; rather, individual black people have been discriminated against due to their association with the entire race. Though some individuals have managed to overcome the burdens of racial prejudice, black people are still looked down upon as a group. One of your black friends may seem trustworthy, but that doesn’t necessarily change your negative view of black people as a whole. It’s alright to have one or two black families in the neighborhood, but as soon as more start to move in, the neighborhood becomes a ghetto. There’s only a certain level of blackness that many people feel they can tolerate—the token gives them the perfect amount.
Here’s what really disturbs me: this notion that the token is better than other black people. Why is it that every time a black person does something good, somebody tries to let him know that he’s not like the rest of us?
The token feels an immense amount of pressure. Nobody is perfect, but the token has to make sure that he doesn’t slip up in front of white people. He feels as if he can’t make certain mistakes because he represents the entire race. One mistake will set black people back 100 years—and no one wants to be “that negro.”
Even at Harvard I feel the burden of tokenism. Luckily, I learned how to deal with it in high school.
For example, during my sophomore year in high school, I was one of two black students enrolled in my Algebra II class. I have this problem where I don’t really like math, so sometimes I would fall asleep in class. It turns out that the other black student had the same problem as well. Because we felt that both black people in the class couldn’t go to sleep at the same time—at least one of us had to be a “good” negro—we took turns going to sleep. Unfortunately, I was the only black person in my pre-calculus and calculus classes, so I had to continuously be a good black person in those situations.
A more prominent example of a token is Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) recently lauded as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” I’m sure Senator Biden meant it as a compliment; however, I—along with many other blacks—took it as an insult. Many whites are comfortable with Barack Obama because they don’t see him in the same way that they still see a majority of black people in America.
Obama doesn’t scare white people. The clean, articulate, and bright guy whom Americans are impressed with is the exact opposite of what Americans expect black people in this country to be.
Blacks are violent. Blacks are angry. Blacks are lazy. Things like racial profiling and negative media portrayals are demonstrative of the suspicious way in which many Americans view blacks and other people of color.
The token helps white Americans feel as if race is no longer an issue. It’s a cover-up. Instead of looking at the continued racial separation in this country, people point to their one friend of the other race and feel satisfied with themselves.
Making someone the token black person and placing him above other black people assumes that all of us—except for the token, of course—are the same. We live in a society still very much conscious of race—even if people don’t like to admit it openly. Making one black person your trustworthy token while you still view black people as a monolith will not fix the ongoing problem of race in America.
Lumumba Seegars ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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